COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Valesano experiencing whirlwind 30-day stretch
Mike Valesano may have a difficult time in the future topping all that he has experienced, or will experience, in December and January.
On Dec. 14, the Brainerd High School graduate started at inside linebacker for the University of St. Thomas in the Division III national championship game where the Tommies lost 28-10 to top-ranked Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
On Saturday, Dec. 29, Valesano will be best man at his brother, John’s wedding at Cragun’s.
Two days after the wedding, Valesano will be in New Orleans where he will be one of 22 outstanding student-athletes who will be recognized as members of the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team. The award, for which there were 117 national nominees, recognizes exceptional community and campus service.
The 22 student-athletes will be recognized at halftime of the Sugar Bowl between Florida and Louisville, a game that will be televised Jan. 2 by ESPN.
In New Orleans, Valesano will be involved in four days of activities, and perform community service.
“I’m involved in a lot of community service events,” he said. “I spent a month in Guatemala. I helped start a nonprofit organization at St. Thomas, me and three friends.
“St. Thomas gives you a lot of opportunities to give back to the community, and that’s what I took advantage of. That award popped up this year. I was completely honored to get the award.
“I was happy to give back to the community, and to the people who got me to where I am today. I was fortunate to grow up in the household, and in the community, that I did. I’ve been blessed by a lot of things. ... I like to give back whenever I can.”
The Tommies entered the national championship game with a 14-0 record, the same as Mount Union, which was making its 16 national final appearance in 20 years, and wound up securing its 11th national title.
Playing in its first national championship game, St. Thomas trailed just 14-10 at the half but managed only 35 yards of offense in the second half.
“Mount Union is a great team,” said Valesano, who recorded six tackles in the game. “Give them credit, but we had our chances. Bottom line, we didn’t capitalize.
“We were feeling good going into the half. Then they pushed in a couple long drives. We had our chances the whole game. But I didn’t think the final was indicative of how close the game was.”
Valesano said the week of the championship game in Salem, Va., was “crazy.”
“We had bad weather here two days before we left so we couldn’t get on the field,” he said. “With all the media stuff, and all the different events going on, it was kind of crazy, dizzying.
“The hospitality we were shown was absolutely wonderful. We were treated like kings. We stayed in a great hotel. They fed us three meals every day. It was just awesome, the banquet was great. It was really a big series of events. It definitely blew my mind, I didn’t expect that.”
Valesano finished his senior season as the Tommies’ second-leading tackler. He played in 14 games, recording 44 solo stops and 24 assists. He added 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. St. Thomas seniors went 50-5 in their careers. Valesano, who missed most of the 2011 season with ankle and foot injuries and was granted a medical red-shirt, was a member of head coach Glenn Caruso’s first recruiting class in 2008. The year before Caruso arrived the Tommies were 2-8.
“We turned around and went 7-3 his first year,” Valesano said. “Over the next five years, we got better each year — 11-2, 12-1, 13-1, 14-1. Each year, we’ve taken one more step to get better. The years we lost in the playoffs, every time we played the team that beat us the year before, we beat that team.”
Valesano called his career at St. Thomas, and playing for Caruso, a “complete blessing.” He also credits Brainerd High School head coach Ron Stolski for steering him to St. Thomas.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to St. Thomas right away,” Valesano said. “I got recruited by the old coach there and didn’t really enjoy my visit. Stolski called me into his office and said there’s a new coach there, Caruso. I was thinking about another school, but Stolski said, ‘Why don’t you go down there and meet him?’
“Me and my dad went down there and (Caruso) completely sold me. He told me everything I wanted to hear. A lot of schools promise playing time or certain things. (Caruso’s) recruiting philosophy is he doesn’t promise anything.
“It’s not easy to play for him, but it was definitely a worthy cause. That’s what he sold me on.”
Caruso said one of his fondest memories of Valesano was when he was a freshman.
“Michael had been here about a week and a half,” Caruso said. “He was a scrawny 190-pound linebacker who was not going to see the field.
“We had our first team meeting — Aug. 28, 2008. Among the many goals we talked about were (grade-point average), winning rival games, changing the attitude. Our final goal was to win a national championship.
“It was a pretty emotional meeting. After that, the players went off to eat, I went back to my office. There was a knock on my door, and 19-year-old Michael Valesano walked into my office and said, ‘Coach, we’re going to win you that national championship.’ He’s a kid with all the heart in the world.
“What I love most about Michael is not his arms and legs. It has all to do with his mind and his heart. He’s a tremendously well-raised young man. ... I love him like a son.”
Valesano said there were similarities between the Brainerd and St. Thomas programs and he was thankful to have been a member of both.
“Obviously, they’re different because one’s a high school program and one’s a college program, but they both teach you about football and make you a better football player,” he said. “Both are built for life lessons and making you a better person.
“When I was in the Brainerd program, I was young and naive. Looking back at Brainerd, there’s not another program that could have prepared me for the experience I had in college.”
An operations management major, Valesano has graduated from St. Thomas. He hopes to land a job as a graduate assistant in a college football program.
“It’s been a blessing to be mentored by two of the greatest coaches I know, and two of the best people I know, Stolski and Caruso,” he said. “They paved the way for my career path.”
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.